Is it a good idea to plea bargain?

I’m thinking of two instances, one real, one fictional, in which a defendant refused to plea bargain, and ended up screwed.

In the real-life example, a man was on trial for conspiracy to commit murder. His lawyer wanted him to plea bargain in the hope that he would get ten years or less. He refused because he had been doing very well with the business he co-owned with his wife, and thought he could stand trial, get acquitted, and pick up where he’d left off. He ended up getting three concurrent life sentences, and his wife divorced him and took full ownership of the business.

In the fictional example, a woman was on trial for a murder she didn’t commit. Her lawyer made a similar case for a plea bargain, but she refused on principle, wanting complete exoneration. She was convicted, and got the death penalty. (Someone confessed before the execution, and the sentence was overturned.)

So my question is, is it a good idea to plea bargain? What if you plea bargain and get a harsh sentence anyway? If you really didn’t do the crime, should you take the chance on getting full exoneration?

I’m not going to address whether it’s a “good” idea to plea bargain or not because it’s so dependent on case-by-case factors. However, in general you don’t just roll the dice with a plea bargain – you (or rather, your lawyer) and the State make a deal, so you know what you’ll get if you agree. Then once you know what the deal is, you can decide if it’s good enough to give up your shot at acquittal at trial (given your chances there).


I think you’ve shown that there is no way to give a single factual answer to this question let alone an umambigiuously correct one for many if not all examples. In many cases it depends on the defendant’s priorities.

I see. Thank you.

If you’re innocent, why plea-bargain?

Because being not guilty is not, in itself, a guarantee that you will be found not guilty.

Because innocence is no guarantee of acquittal. The jury and/or judge is not clairvoyant and can’t perceive with absolute accuracy the truth of what happened. INstead, they make a legally binding decision based on the permissible evidence, and it can be conceivably wrong.

I know of a case where the defendant was charged with “torture” (CA PC206) which carries a life sentence, but was allowed to plead guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a sentence of one year or less. (Though IANAL, I am familiar with the details of this case and the torture allegation was weak to say the least. You shouldn’t imagine that it was anything like what we’ve been hearing about in the news, or anything like what you see movies about Nazis and the like.)

What would you do if you were in the defendant’s position? You’d probably take the plea.

A buddy of mine was in this situation, accused of felony credit theft (innocent), but offered a plea bargin. My friend is pissed, says blow me. For the next several weeks, he and his wife will be turned in knots about the possibility of his being innnocent, but spending the next few years in prison.

Trial looms. Prosecutor is getting steamed my buddy won’t cop to the felony. Magnanimous, he finally says: “How about misdemeanor fraud?”

Bite me, my friend says. Weeks pass.

Prosecutor is irritated and dumbfounded. Finally says: “How about you plead guilty to drunk in public?”

My friend refuses and suggests the prosecutor perform a sex act that only a Cirque du Soleil performer could even attempt. “What does drunk in public have to do with credit fraud!?”

[Full disclosure: my friend WAS drunk (in a bar) when accused of fraud; the cop interviewed him outside and then arrested him for drunk in public in addition to fraud. Sheesh.]

Conclusion: Trial by jury. Jury deliberates for 15 minutes, 10 of which they spend choosing a foreman. Buddy acquitted. The jury takes my friend out for lunch. They buy.

Epilogue: The prosecuting attorney suffers his first ever loss in court (most of his wins were through plea bargins as it turns out). My buddy is in the hole $15,000 for his defense attorney.

Just a thought, but is being offerred a plea bargain admissible in court?

“Detective X, if you’re so sure my client is guilty, why did you offer him a plea bargain for Y?”

Not only are they admissible, the court system would probably collapse without plea bargains, which eliminate the need for lengthy trials that would otherwise strangle the docket out of sheer numbers.

From a 2002 New York Times Magazine article:

“According to Albert Alschuler, a University of Chicago law professor, roughly 90 percent of convictions occur when the defendant waives the right to trial and pleads guilty. And most of those pleas involve a deal that reduces punishment.”

The drawbacks to plea bargaining include: pressure for the innocent to plead to something they didn’t do to assure that they don’t incur a greater penalty; and comparatively light sentences for the guilty.

Quartz is not asking whether plea bargains are legal, s/he’s asking whether the offer of a plea bargain may be used as evidence at trial. The answer to that question is I believe no, plea negotiations are not evidence.

I think Quartz’s question may have been whether plea offers and statements made during negotiations are eligible in a subsequent trial if the defendant pleads not guilty. As Otto said, the answer to that is no, except in a few limited circumstances:

Rule 410 would not technically keep out Quartz’s example, because it only bars evidence against the defendant and doesn’t prevent the defense from rebutting or bolstering by using statements made by prosecutors during plea agreements. However, the statement, like most such statements, would almost certainly be excluded on other grounds. The opinion and statements made by prosecutors in plea negotiations are generally either not relevant or excluded under Rule 403, which excludes relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. The simple offer of a plea bargain in a case (or even an admission by the prosecutor that a case is weak) is usually either of no relevance or of so little relevance as to not be worthy of consideration by the jury. A defense attorney making such a statement without a very good reason would run the risk of looking foolish, getting called on the carpet in chambers by the judge, or both.

Also you don’t really have the opportunity in a criminal trial of asking the other side questions.


Look up Tulia. That mess documents why some people plead guilty and the problems if you are innocent but plead guilty and later they realize you are innocent.

IIRC the first conviction in the Tulia mess resulted in a 90 year sentence for dealing drugs to an older pig farmer in ill health. Others charged in that mess knew the defendent was innocent, as they were too, and got scared and plead to lesser crimes or punishments. When finally the mess was revealed and the system in Texas began to clean it up, some who plead guilty where not able to clear readily their name. I don’t know if their names ever were cleared.

What, you didn’t see “Inherit the Wind”? :smiley:

I ran across a couple of cases where the defense attempted to admit evidence of prosecutor’s offer of a plea or a statement of the weakness of their case (U.S. v. Verdoorn, 528 F.2nd 103 (8th Cir. 1976), but I can’t pull any right now and don’t know if they involved any prosecutors being put on the witness stand. I did have an appeal I worked on where prosecutors had to take the stand to answer allegations of Brady violations, but that sort of thing is pretty rare.

Criminal defense attourney’s motto (as related by my lawyer): Sometimes you win, sometimes your client loses.

Remember, a plea is a conviction, and (generally) can’t be appealed or overturned. Depending on the serverity of the crime being plead to it can have consequences that will follow you the rest of your life. Take that into consideration when making a plea.